Kourosh Ziabari and Ivan Jacovcic | Croatia is a nation of about 4.1 million people. Situated at the crossroads of central and southeastern Europe, it is the newest member of the European Union and one of the youngest countries on the continent. It declared independence in 1991 and has been on a path to economic, social and political development since then.
Figures by the International Monetary Fund show that Croatia is the world’s 79th country in terms of gross domestic product. The 2018 edition of Global Peace Index ranked Croatia 27th in its snapshot of the global state of peace. Tourism accounts for some 20% of Croatia’s GDP, and agriculture, forestry, mining and shipbuilding are the major drivers of its economic growth.
Despite being considered a country with a high human development score, relatively free media and stable political institutions, Croatia faces its own challenges. Both socially and politically, these range from corruption and unemployment to tensions with neighboring Serbia and border disputes with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also expected that Croatia will join the eurozone and Schengen area.
Ivan Jakovcic is a Croatian politician and the nation’s former minister of European integration who was in office from 2000 to 2001. He is currently a member of the European Parliament. He was elected to the European legislature in 2014 and his political career includes membership in the Croatian parliament for five terms.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Jakovcic about Croatian foreign policy, the nation’s plans to join the eurozone and relations with Serbia.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: Despite being a young country, Croatia has a proactive foreign policy and maintains diplomatic relations with some 180 countries. Now that it’s a member of NATO and the European Union, what are the main foreign policy priorities for Croatia?
Ivan Jakovcic: The top foreign policy priority of Croatia is the stability of its neighborhood. We want all other countries of Southeastern Europe to speed up on the European path. Croatia as a stable member of the EU and NATO can contribute and assist these countries in transforming and fulfilling the accession criteria. It is in Croatian interests that all these countries, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, remain stable and that Croatians living there are protected under the constitution. On the foreign policy agenda for Croatia, as Europe’s newest member state, is the Croatian presidency of the EU Council, which is in the first half of 2020.
Ziabari: When do you think Croatia will join the eurozone? Is Croatia able to meet the euro convergence criteria and adopt the euro as its currency?
Jakovcic: I do hope that in 2020 Croatia will achieve entry to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2), a waiting room for adopting the euro. Croatian citizens have already adopted the euro — they have long decided to keep most of their savings in the single currency. But fear of rising prices, as the effect of introducing the euro, is present among our citizens. At the same time, the introduction of the euro, with its reduction of foreign exchange uncertainty and other informal barriers to investment, could help attract foreign investment and give a boost to Croatia’s tourism sector. It is realistic to expect Croatia’s entry into the eurozone within five to seven years.
Ziabari: The Croatian Ministry of Interior has announced that it will meet the technical criteria for joining the Schengen zone by year-end and hopes to join it by 2020. What factors have been impeding Croatia’s accession to the Schengen zone so far?
Jakovcic: Control over the EU’s external borders is the most demanding aspect of our preparations for joining the Schengen zone. Croatia has already fully equipped its border with Serbia and now is doing it on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The objective is to bring Croatia into the Schengen zone at least during the Croatian presidency of the EU Council. The plan of Croatia is to be ready to fulfill all the technical criteria by 2019.
The European Commission must then assess if we’re ready to join, which we hope it will do before the next elections for the European Parliament next May. Then we are looking forward to a political go-ahead from our EU partners. The free movement of people would benefit the economy, especially tourism, which accounts for almost 20% of Croatia’s gross domestic product.
Ziabari: It seems that the bitter legacy of war criminal Slobodan Milošević still overshadows relations between Croatia and Serbia. How do you see the current state of relations between the two neighbors? Are they able to work toward reconciliation, solve their border dispute over the area of the Danube River and find a solution to their differences?
Jakovcic: Unfortunately, wounds are still not healed. From my point of view, Serbia is still not ready to confront the past and its role in the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Peace and cooperation have no alternative. One of the issues that overshadows the relations between our two countries is that of missing persons from the Homeland War. It is the most painful issue in Croatia’s relations with Serbia.
Croatia also needs to address the issues of the protection of minorities in Serbia. The border with Serbia on the Danube River is a diplomatic issue, not a daily political one. Those issues must be resolved during Serbia’s accession negotiations with the EU.
Ziabari: The far right is rising across Europe and ultranationalist leaders in countries such as Hungary are pushing for xenophobic, anti-immigration and illiberal agendas. Has Croatia been affected by the repercussions of far-right extremism in central and Eastern Europe?
Jakovcic: Over the past few years, Croatia has been affected with the rise of the radical right-wing extremist movement that emerges both through the action of one part of the ruling party — that is the Croatian Democratic Union-HDZ == as well as through the activities of conservative groups, some of which are closely tied to the Catholic Church. Those groups are strongly opposed to the Istanbul Convention, ratified in April 2018, claiming it “imposes gender ideology” and that it endangers “traditional family values.”
Fortunately, the Croatian government manages, so far, to keep distance from these forces, maintaining the balance between conservative and progressive forces.
Ziabari: The root cause of the global refugee crisis is the conflicts and wars in the Middle East and North Africa that have made these regions uninhabitable and intolerable for their citizens. Is it possible to find a viable solution to the very crises that have generated millions of refugees wanting to leave their homes in search of better lives in Europe and North America?
Jakovcic: I am not satisfied with the fact that, so far, the EU is incapable of finding a solution to this problem. We are, somehow, trying to push the migration issue out of sight.
EU relations with African countries have become obsessively focused on stopping migration toward Europe. The EU needs to set a different course — working on the elimination of reasons people have to flee, providing safe, legal passages to refugees, and seeking to support rather than undermine human rights and democracy beyond its borders. On the European level, we have to act together to create a real European Border and Coast Guard, to establish, inside or outside Europe, “reception centers” by setting up a legal system for economic migration and by increasing development funding for Africa.
Ziabari: Let’s move on to some European politics. Kosovo is on a quest to win global recognition and become a fully accepted and integrated member of the international community. Do you think Kosovo has an easy job lobbying and convincing some 82 UN member states that don’t recognize it presently to change their mind?
Jakovcic: I support Kosovo’s European future, and I am convinced that it can someday, as an independent state, look forward to entering into the EU integration process.
The European Parliament calls for the EU to complete its official recognition of Kosovo and urges the five member states refusing to recognize Kosovo to drop their blockade. I want to emphasize that the EU’s positive influence in Kosovo has been significantly weakened by its disunity.
At the same time, we urge the government in Pristina to take concrete steps to stabilize the country both economically and socially, and to clamp down on criminal gangs that traffic undocumented migrants through the region and on to the EU. It also includes calls for tangible progress on the rule of law, media freedom and the fight against corruption and organized crime, establishing of the Community of Serb Municipalities in accordance to the 2013 Brussels Agreement, as well as for the continuation of constructive dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. This is a vital precondition to giving new impetus to the process of international recognition of Kosovo which, regrettably, has seemed to be going into reverse of late.
Ziabari: How will the European Parliament and European institutions deal with the side-effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2019? Are you personally concerned about the emergence of a possible rift between EU members over Britain’s departure from the union?
Jakovcic: In the Brexit negotiations, the unity of EU27 should be upheld. However, my impression is that some of the EU member states are concerned how Brexit will affect bilateral relations with the UK. The European Parliament should stand up for the rights of all those affected by Brexit. For instance, I strongly believe that EU27 citizens in the UK, who have contributed to British society and paid their taxes, should not pay for registration. The importance of securing equal and fair treatment for EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU should be stressed. But I am optimistic that there will be a deal.
Ziabari: What’s your take on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela? Does the European Parliament have any certain plan or strategy to contribute to the improvement of the situation? There are many EU citizens living in Venezuela. Are you concerned about them?
Jakovcic: Venezuela needs Europe more than ever. The European Parliament strongly condemns the crimes committed by the Venezuelan authorities and calls for an immediate independent investigation in the case of Fernando Albán, who died while being in custody of Venezuela’s intelligence police.
We need to act now before it is too late. The EU has the responsibility to use all diplomatic and peaceful means to protect the Venezuelan population. These have not yet been close to exhausted. We, as members of the European Parliament, call for EU sanctions to be extended against those mainly responsible for the increased political, social, economic and humanitarian crisis, namely the president, the vice-president, the minister of defense, members of the high military command and members of their inner circles. Criminals cannot get away unpunished, and they have to respond to international justice.
The Venezuelan authorities must halt all human rights violations and hold those responsible accountable. We are also concerned about the social impact of the ongoing economic crisis that is seriously affecting the population, including many European citizens residing in the country. The EU should, without delay, provide assistance to those affected.
Ziabari: As a European politician, what do you think about relations with Iran? How are they important? Is the European Union able to salvage the nuclear agreement with Iran without the United States and keep the Iranians in the deal?
Jakovcic: The European Union should remain committed to keeping the Iran nuclear deal in place as long as Iran stays committed to it. In the absence of the nuclear deal with Iran, the security of the region and of Europe would be at stake. I believe that engagement and dialogue with Tehran are more productive than going for confrontation.